Does Pitt’s use of search firm for coach represent conflict of interest?
March 29, 2016 12:03 AM
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes walks into a press conference with new head basketball coach Kevin Stallings at a press conference at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes introduces Kevin Stallings as the team's new head basketball coach Monday at a press conference at Petersen Events Center.
New Pitt head men's basketball coach Kevin Stallings talks to the media next to athletic director Scott Barnes, left, Monday at a press conference at Petersen Events Center.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The University of Pittsburgh’s introduction of men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings on Monday signaled the end of a weeklong search, scrutinized by some not only for the person but the process.
In hiring Mr. Stallings, a head coach of 23 years at Illinois State and Vanderbilt whose selection has been met with hesitation from Pitt fans, athletic director Scott Barnes solicited Collegiate Sports Associates, a North Carolina-based executive search and consulting firm led by Mr. Barnes’ former boss.
The company’s founder and president, Todd Turner, was the athletic director at the University of Washington when Mr. Barnes was the school’s senior associate athletic director from 2005-08. Mr. Turner also was the athletic director at Vanderbilt in 1999 when the Commodores hired Mr. Stallings as basketball coach, a position he held until Sunday, when Pitt announced it had selected him to replace Jamie Dixon.
At Mr. Stallings’ introductory news conference Monday at Petersen Events Center, Mr. Barnes fended off questions that the arrangement posed a conflict of interest.
“I’ve worked with Todd for several years in searches,” he said. “Like anybody on staff or anybody else, you’re comfortable with folks you work with.”
Prior to arriving at Pitt last April, Mr. Barnes used Mr. Turner’s firm to conduct searches at his previous employer, Utah State, where he was the athletic director for seven years. Mr. Turner also was hired to help Pitt find its new deputy athletic director for athletic affairs, Julio Freire, whose hiring was announced three days after Mr. Dixon, Pitt’s head coach of 13 years, left for his alma mater, Texas Christian University.
“He folded right in,” Mr. Barnes said of Mr. Turner and his firm. “The word hit and he was already on board and the process moved forward. It was the most expeditious way to do it. It was a guy who I trust and have confidence in who we’ve used at other schools. It was a lot like any consultant or the associate AD. If you’re comfortable, you’re going to keep going back.”
A call and an email to Collegiate Sports Associates were not returned.
The questions surrounding Pitt’s hiring process come at a time when the use of search firms has become widespread in college athletics. Mr. Barnes estimated Monday that such companies are involved in “about 80 to 90 percent” of searches in college sports. Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said Monday that search firms are “right or wrong, part of the business.”
As prevalent as they have become, search firms and their function are sometimes misunderstood.
Except in rare cases, the companies, which typically charge between $100,000 and $200,000 for their work, don’t hire coaches directly. Instead they provide schools with a list of candidates who meet the criteria given for the position. If the university already has a list of targets, the firm will do background research on the prospective hires. In many ways, it’s a more formal version of the process athletic directors once used in which they would make calls to people they knew in the industry when looking to fill an open position.
To universities, the firms also represent an effective middleman, a way to reach out to candidates or their agents without establishing any kind of direct contact that would require another institution’s permission or be leaked to a news outlet.
In the relatively small world of NCAA Division I athletics, it’s not uncommon for an athletic director and a familiar third party to work together, and for the search firm, in certain instances, to have a stable of candidates it pushes to a school.
“Are there relationships between search consultants and administrators and coaches? Yes,” said Merritt Norvell, a former athletic director at Michigan State who was the executive vice president for 15 years at DHR International, a global executive search firm that Pitt used when it hired Mr. Barnes. “That’s true all the way from the presidents right down to the athletic department and the coaches. Some presidents use certain search firms because that’s the search firm that placed them in their job. It’s the same thing with athletic directors.”
Though Mr. Norvell, the executive director of the National Association for Coaching Equity and Development, acknowledges the nature of college coaching searches can limit opportunities for minority coaches, the sometimes buddy-buddy nature of search firms doesn’t contribute to that exclusion.
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said in an interview with the Post-Gazette last week that there often is a quid pro quo to the university-search firm partnership — that by paying a firm hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with a coaching search, an athletic director may receive help from that company the next time a desirable athletic director position opens.
Mr. Bilas, however, doesn’t believe those relationships are detrimental, barring any kind of foul play.
“I don’t see how,” he said. “The only issue is money. You’re paying for the search firm, so if it’s duplicative of something the university could or should do itself, then I can see a problem.
“I don’t see any conflict unless you’re somehow paying money to a friend. But the decision is up to Pittsburgh on who it hires. The search firm has essentially no say in that unless the university essentially wants to farm the entire thing out. But I don’t think that’s happening.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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